Tagarchief: grau

On Immersion 25: From belief to imagination, part 10 – Some conclusions

Following Walton’s analogy to children’s games of make-believe, we place our (emotional) involvement with representations in the imagination instead of emphasizing on seeing in and seeing as. We can thus counter immediacy or unconscious illusion as a necessary condition for immersion, as our relation to representations takes place within the imagination. By changing belief as the necessary condition for immersion into imagination, we can understand why the willing suspension of disbelief is not sufficient as an explanation of how we deal with representations. Instead of suspending disbelief, we rather bracket our belief in imagination. We do not believe in the fictional propositions offered to us by representations, we ‘merely’ imagine accepting these propositions, making them truths in our imagination. Our relation to representations then becomes one of fictionality and imagination, rather than one of truth and belief.

We use the reality principle and the mutual belief principle to link what is represented to our own experience of reality and to recenter ourselves to be able to fictionally believe what we see, read or hear. Because of this, a representation does not need to be perfect (Murray 1999), strictly mimetic (Ryan 2001) or hermetic (Grau 2003) in order to stimulate immersion, as it stimulates the game of make-believe we play in our imagination. Just as we bracket or embed our belief in fictional propositions in our imagination, we also bracket our emotions towards fictional characters in our imagination. Because of this, it does not matter whether or not a fictional character has really existed. We use empathy to relate to fictional characters. We do not become a fictional character, we feel emotions through imagining how it would feel to be the fictional character, just as we empathize with real people. We imagine fictional characters to be real, and in this imagination, our emotional involvement takes place. This emotional involvement is colored by the extra-propositional properties of a representation, such as style, tone or narrative structures. Our stance towards the fictional world that is built up of fictional propositions is thus influenced by the representation itself. This role of representations accounts for differences in emotional involvement that are not directly related to the contents of representations and their (authorized) games of make-believe.

Although I still question the whole ‘recentering belief and emotions in imagination’-theory (and therefore the notion of ‘quasi-emotion’), in the next posts I will test Walton’s view on our emotional involvement with representations and thus immersion on a presumption underlying his framework: the ever-present ability to distinguish representation from reality.

Grau, Oliver. Virtual Art: from Illusion to Immersion. Cambridge, MA: MIT, 2003.
Murray, Janet Horowitz. Hamlet on the Holodeck: the Future of Narrative in Cyberspace. Cambridge, MA: MIT, 1999.
Ryan, Marie-Laure. Narrative as Virtual Reality: Immersion and Interactivity in Literature and Electronic Media. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 2001.
Walton, Kendall L. Mimesis as Make-believe: on the Foundations of the Representational Arts. Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 1990.

On Immersion 17: From belief to imagination, part 2 – Seeing in and seeing as

As discussed in previous posts (see posts 1 to 10), Murray, Grau and Ryan argue that successful and immersive media become transparent to their users. This implies that immediacy is a necessary condition for immersion. Ryan introduces a scale of immersion, assuming a gliding scale between seeing-in and seeing-as. However, in Mimesis as Make-Believe: On the Foundations of the Representational Arts (1990), Kendall L. Walton argues that immersion is not primarily about perception, but rather about imagination. According to Walton, we do not first see the object and then the represented when dealing with representations. Walton follows Heidegger and Wittgenstein in the idea that seeing in and seeing as are involved in one mental process. The works of Murray, Ryan and especially Grau are motivated by the transfer of seeing in to seeing as: seeing in would imply being aware of the medium, seeing as would entail, in Grau’s terms, “unconscious illusion”. In Walton’s view, this unconscious illusion (or immediacy) is not necessary for immersion to occur, as he compares our involvement with representations to what he calls children’s games of make-believe: “What all representations have in common is a role in make-believe. Make-believe, explained in terms of imagination, will constitute the core of my theory.” (Walton 4)

Walton argues that “the experience of being caught up in a story, being emotionally involved in the world of a novel or play or painting” is central to our evaluation of fiction.” (Walton 6) To understand this experience, Walton argues that representations act as props in games of make-believe. A doll can be a prop when it is imagined to be a baby in a children’s game of make-believe. Because the doll shows similarities to a baby, it is a representation of a baby. Therefore, the game of make-believe in which the doll is imagined to be a baby is motivated. The game of make believe takes place in the imagination of the child playing the game.

John Dominis' American Child Playing with Chinese Friend, Washing Doll Clothes
John Dominis’ ‘American Child Playing with Chinese Friend, Washing Doll Clothes’

When an observer looks at a painting, the same happens. The observer ‘uses’ the painting to imagine what is represented in a game of make-believe. When this game of make-believe corresponds to the representation, the game is motivated. However, as Grau already noted, depictive representations do not coincide with reality. In a perceptual game of make-believe, translation is needed. The representation is mimetic, but also conventional. Observers are used to conventions like perspective, so this translation is quick and easy. With verbal representations, although they are more conventional than depictive representations, this process is no different. A verbal representation is, just like a depictive representation, a prop in a game of make-believe. Depictive representations however, are visual input for our imagination and therefore keep functioning as a prop in make-believe, while a verbal representation is only an initiator for imagination. [Note 1] Despite the differences between depictive and verbal representations, for Walton both types of representations primarily function as props in games of make-believe.

The Tall Book of Make-believe
The Tall Book of Make-believe by Jane Werner (1950)

Our relation to representations is thus explained as our imagination being stimulated by representations. [Note 2] Walton argues that seeing in and seeing as are involved in one mental process. Placing our (emotional) involvement in imagination – through the analogy to children’s games of make-believe – the quest for immediacy, or, seeing as, is no longer needed for pursuing immersion, as our involvement with representations takes place in the imagination. The theories of immersion previously discussed, and most explicitly that of Grau, started off with a negative point of view, i.e. an absence or failure: the unconscious illusion needed for immersion. This perspective not only focuses on the medium’s disappearance and the paradox between immediacy and hypermediacy (Bolter & Grusin 1999), but also grants an important role to something illusory of which we are unconscious. It is therefore hard to get a grip on this notion of immersion, as it is necessarily beyond our consciousness. Walton however provides us with a framework of make-believe, in which imagination is seen as the place in which immersion arises and media are seen as having the potential to stimulate this imagination, rather than as incompetent devices. Walton’s analogy to make-believe thus makes the discussion on (defining) immersion more pragmatic and focuses on possibilities of the whole range of representational arts. The question is now what the relation between representations and our imagination is. To explain how games of make-believe work, we will look at Walton’s notion of fictional propositions.

[1] A verbal representation is an initiator for imagination, while a perceptual representation continually fulfills its function as a prop in our game of make-believe. After reading, words have fulfilled their function as props. This means that, when looking at Leonardo da Vinci’s The Last Supper, the painting itself keeps functioning as a prop while the observer imagines seeing Jesus and his disciples. But, when reading about the last supper, we construct an image of this scene after which the words that trigger this imagination lose their function. To account for this difference, Walton argues that when we read a book, we fictionally believe we are reading a report of an event, much like Ryan’s example of the epistolary novel. This report can be ‘written’ by an eyewitness or a character internal to the story. Although Walton’s report-model is credited with much potential, Walton seems to use narrative concepts like author, narrator, story history and focalization without the necessary critical distinction. (See Walton 149, 168, 329 and 378)

[2] Walton’s approach is based on cognitive psychology, as are the approaches of Bordwell, Carroll and Currie. This cognitive approach can be understood as a reaction to film theory that focuses on textual and narrative analysis to determine the meaning of a movie, leaving less space for regarding the observer’s relation to the movie. While cognitivists argue that the observer’s involvement is absent in other film theories, film scholars like Temenuga Trifonova argue that in the cognitive film theory the object or movie itself becomes irrelevant to the analysis and interpretation: “The real object is totally irrelevant to the act of comprehension; in fact, it remains an obstacle unless it is abstracted into a schema.” (Trifonova 2008, xxiv) We can see why this criticism also applies to Walton’s theory. The main objection is that of relativism: anything an observer ‘finds’ in a movie is relevant and textual analysis of a movie disappears into the background. The risk is that the movie is reduced to an instrument to study the functioning of the human brain. As we see in Walton’s approach, the text or movie does not become totally irrelevant, as he introduces the notion of authorized games of make-believe. (Walton 51) This means that the observer cannot just think everything into the imaginatory world of the game of make-believe; the representation should motivate the game played with it. However, as the focus here is on immersion as our emotional involvement with representations, cognitive theory is of great help in understanding this involvement. The focus is on the question of how we get ‘immersed’ in a representation, rather than on full textual analysis.

Grau, Oliver. Virtual Art: From Illusion to Immersion. Cambridge, MA: MIT, 2003.
Bolter, J. David, and Richard A. Grusin. Remediation: Understanding New Media. Cambridge, MA: MIT, 1999.
Trifonova, Temenuga. European Film Theory. London: New York, 2008.
Walton, Kendall L. Mimesis as Make-believe: On the Foundations of the Representational Arts. Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 1990.

On Immersion 16: From belief to imagination, part 1 – Introducing Make-believe

In the working definition of immersion given in on of the first posts in this series, immersion was treated as trading one’s identity and environment for a represented identity and environment. The authors discussed in posts 1 – 10 in this series all viewed immersion from the perspective of the medium or the representation. This view raised questions about the nature of representations and our involvement with them, but was unable to answer them. Grau (2003) argued for an important role for unconscious illusion, but did not explain what this unconscious illusion exactly is (arguably because something unconscious is hard to clarify). The following posts discuss a view influenced by cognitive psychology to clarify the aesthetics of illusion previously explained as something unconscious, illusory and therefore ungraspable. The questions raised by the previous posts will provide the outline. They will be answered using the framework on the foundations of representational arts provided by Kendall Walton (1990).

Kendall Walton’s ‘Mimesis as Make-believe’ (1990)

The following post will focus on the idea of immediacy as a necessary condition for immersion: how do seeing in and seeing as work in relation to immersion? This question reflects on Grau’s notion of unconscious illusion. Next, the relation between representation and imagination is highlighted to understand how we deal with representations. Following Walton’s analogy to games of make-believe, the willing suspension of disbelief, as discussed by Murray, will be reviewed by looking at truth and belief as opposed to fictionality and imagination. Next, the focus lies on what it means to trade your identity. Do we really identify with Emma Bovary to such an extent that it seems as if we become her when reading Flaubert’s novel? Finally, the influence of representations on our epistemic stance towards them is discussed.

Grau, Oliver. Virtual Art: From Illusion to Immersion. Cambridge, MA: MIT, 2003.
Walton, Kendall L. Mimesis as Make-believe: On the Foundations of the Representational Arts. Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 1990.

On immersion 10: Immersion in new media theory

The works of Murray, Grau and Ryan discussed in the previous posts give a preliminary understanding of what it means to be immersed and how this process works. Murray presupposes immersion to be perceptual and therefore solves the tension between immersion and interaction by arguing that successful media become transparent to its users. Murray’s description of immersion as transportation involves an unclear movement between reality and fiction. This movement is in need of a suspension of disbelief, thus assuming the relation between reality and fiction to be one of truth instead of fictionality: only when we believe something to be true, we can be immersed and feel real emotions. As Murray seems to stress imagination as the location for immersion, it is unclear what the exact role of objects and representations is. This forms an inconsistency in her intent to rid new technology of its dystopian connotations and to celebrate its narrative capacities, as she implicitly seems to devalue the role of stimuli.

As for Grau, immersion is presented as being generated by illusion spaces. For Grau it is essential that the medium evades the consciousness, and makes the viewer or reader believe in its representation. Therefore belief seems also for Grau a central condition for immersion. Both Murray and Grau see in new technology the potency of ‘tricking’ the observer in believing what is mediated being unmediated. This places them in what Bolter and Grusin call the historical desire for immediacy. We strive for a what Bazin calls the ‘myth of total cinema’, obsessed by a resemblance complex we hope one day representation might coincide with reality. Both Murray and Grau see new technological possibilities as the way to satisfy this desire. Therefore they support what Bolter and Grusin call the double logic of remediation: in the quest for a dissolving medium (immediacy), more and more technology is used and therefore not immediacy but hypermediacy is achieved.

Ryan, like Murray and Grau, supports an aesthetics of illusion, thus stressing the relation between representation and reality being one of truth and belief. She presupposes a relation between world and text and argues that the smaller the difference between the two (thus the more realistic the representation is), the higher the level of immersion will be. With this she introduces a scale of immersion, assuming the possibility of a gliding scale between “seeing-in” and “seeing-as”. By basing her theory on the acceptance that emotions for fiction are “not really” emotions, the ontological status of representations and emotional involvement needs clarification. This notion of quasi-emotions is not in line with Ryan’s argument for the recentering of the reader.

As Ryan argues herself, “we can debate endlessly what it means to be immersed”. (Ryan 17) We can view her gliding scale of immersion as an attempt to grasp the concept of immersion, which seems complex and slippery. It seems difficult to pinpoint what it exactly is and how it works. Ryan’s four level-scale is useful to illustrate this complexity, this elusiveness, but it does not provide us with a way to define or fully understand immersion. When Ryan argues that “literature has already perfected the art of immersive world construction.” (Ryan 12), this is one more reason to pursue a clear understanding of what is meant by immersion. Where Murray, Grau and Ryan give us their views on what it means to be immersed and how to achieve immersion through media and technology, their explanations also pose difficult questions involving, for instance, the status of emotions and the ontology of representations. These questions will be taken up in the next posts.

On immersion 8: Unconscious illusion

Virtual Art by Oliver Grau has a promising subtitle: From Illusion to Immersion. In Virtual Art, Grau studies new-media art and in particular virtual reality. Not unlike the method of Murray, Grau places virtual reality in the tradition of what he calls “illusion spaces” (Grau 4). Although it seems that Grau does not define illusion spaces, the goal of images as illusion spaces is to reduce or eliminate the psychological distance between viewer and “image space”. Grau does not explain the notion of image space, but I assume he means the space being represented in the (pictorial) representation. This seems to match Bolter and Grusin’s notion of the historical desire for immediacy and (therefore) illusion.

Grau starts his historical account with frescoes dating from 20 years BC and through the development of the image he moves towards a comprehensive description of the aesthetic, social and economic factors of the panorama, as introduced by Robert Barker in 1789.

Robert Barker's panorama
Robert Barker’s panorama

That this art form is central for his approach of the history of images, seems to lie largely in the cultural context of the panorama. Grau places the panorama in the cultural historical context where art forms were beginning to be used not ‘just’ to represent reality, but to constitute alternative realities. (1) Faux terrain (2) and later photography and film, all feeding the wish to exchange physical reality for a fictional reality by hiding their own embodiment as media. In otherwords, depicting reality becomes creation of another reality.

Faux Terrain
Faux Terrain

Grau’s historical overview ends, in line with the goal of Virtual Art, with an extensive discussion on new technologies being used to create virtual realities. Although Grau cannot hide his enthusiasm for computer generated virtual realities, he nuances his enthusiasm by placing the technological developments in a historical perspective. With this, he makes clear that the connotation of our present use of the term virtual reality is not exclusive to the realm of the new technological paradigm. Virtual reality has been pursued with panoramas and other art forms, and therefore immersion is a central concept in the history of representation. Grau gives an explanation of how immersion is achieved:

Immersion arises when artwork and technologically advanced apparatus, message and medium, are perceived to merge inseparably. In this moment of calculated “totalization”, the artwork is extinguished as an autonomously perceived aesthetic object for a limited period of time. Then conscious illusion, as in the weaker form of trompe d’oeil, can shift right around for a few moments into unconscious illusion. (Grau 340)

For Grau immersion thus occurs in a situation in which an object (a medium) and its representation merge in perception and this fusion is, for a given period, seen as one aesthetic object. This view of conscious bewilderment can, for a few moments, turn into unconscious illusion: immersion. Why for Grau the moments of unconscious illusion are short remains unclear (and somewhat counter intuitive), but perhaps this is because the medium is “fooling” or tricking the observer: eventually he or she will find out. Again, as with Murray, we see here what Bolter and Grusin call the desire for immediacy: a truly immersive experience must be preceded by the disappearance of the medium offering the representation. Grau calls this illusionism and remarks about his use of examples: “The examples discussed here demonstrate that a constant characteristic of the principle of immersion is to conceal the appearance of the actual illusion medium by keeping it beneath the perceptive threshold of the observer to maximize the intensity of the messages that are being conveyed. The medium becomes invisible” (Grau 340). One of the examples, the panorama developed by Barker, consisted of several landscape pictures arranged together. The set of landscapes involved manipulations of perspective, fooling the observer into believing to see a real landscape and therefore rendering the medium “invisible”. Immersion occurs the moment the observer shifts from conscious illusion (seeing a landscape in the panorama) to unconscious illusion (seeing the panorama as the landscape). According to Grau, new media and technologies like 3-D simulations, sensory suits and virtual reality employ the same strategy, that of “fooling” the observer into being unconscious of the medium by making the medium invisible.

The strive for immediacy
The strive for immediacy

Grau’s perspective on how immersion should be pursued becomes clear when he delineateshis use of the term immersion. In chapter one he limits his study to only those alternative realities that intervene with perception, which offer “particularly through their totality, the option of fusing with the image medium, which affects sensory impressions and awareness”. (Grau 13) With this, Grau emphasizes the difference between “non-hermetic effects of illusionistic painting, such as trompe l’oeil, where the medium is readily recognizable, […] image spaces that are delimited by a frame that is apparent to the observer, such as the theater[…]” and “[forms that are] suitable for communicating virtual realities in a way that overwhelms the senses.” (Grau 13, 14) Grau discards a great deal of media when it comes to immersion, arguing that “these image media [in their delineated form] stage symbolically the aspect difference. […] For this reason they do not form part of this study”. This difference is the difference between object and representation or the medium and what is mediated. This at least gives the impression that the understanding of immersion that Grau holds for his study is based on the need of an overwhelming sensory experience. This must be embodied in a medium that surrounds the viewer and on top of this can convincingly hide its own nature or materiality. A painting is therefore not what Grau calls immersive, but a panorama or faux terrain is. The painting does not conceal its being a painting, while the panorama and faux terrain do. The spatial dimension is essential to Grau and largely determines whether a viewer finds him- or herself involved in a different reality.

It is clear that immersion, and thus illusion, plays a dominant role in the history of representational art for Grau. He finds his view supported by technological developments such as the panorama, photography, film etc. For Grau, mankind is pursuing the creation of an ultimate virtual reality that is, at least on a sensory level, indistinguishable from reality in which the virtual reality is embedded. This goes beyond a realistic representation of reality: an indistinguishable representation or creation is pursued.

Virtual Art is an interesting study in which immersion and immediacy are placed in the history of illusionist pictorial representation. Although this again points towards the role of media in pursuing immersion, it is still unclear what exactly happens when the observer experiences it, except for being under what Grau terms ‘unconscious illusion’. This notion remains quite vague in the end. The focus on media to represent, but also to its hiding itself from the observer, leads us to the question of the importance of the medium. Is a medium, or even a representation needed for immersion to occur? Murray did also seem to entail a tension between seeing in new media and technology a potency to achieve immersion, but also seemed to suggest an important role for imagination. The preceding question will be taken up later. In the next post we will look at Ryan’s explanation of immersion and how to achieve it.

1 A more comprehensive philosophy of the function of art can be found in Arthur C. Danto’s The Death of Art, heavily influenced by Hegel’s End of Art-thesis.

EDIT: Jacob van der Linden corrected me on note 1: It should have read Arthur C Danto’s Transfiguration of the commonplace. Thanks Jacob.

2 Faux terrain is used in panoramic paintings. It realizes a smooth transition from the painting to its surroundings, for instance by placing characters from the fictional world of the painting in the real world in which the painting is located.